We can take pride in the idea of America: a racially, religiously, and ethnically diverse republic bound by a set of common ideas is an extraordinary historical achievement. Yet more than two centuries into the American experiment, we must be humble in recognizing how far we have to go. The struggle before us, a struggle inextricable from the whole of our history, is to make that idea real—especially when it comes to race.
The poet Langston Hughes has given us the most sublime expression of this struggle in “Let America Be America Again.” He evokes some of what is best about America: pioneer dreams and liberty “where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme” and where “Equality is in the air we breathe.” But from the margins, those denied the promise mumble in the dark: “America never was America to me.” It is the hard truth of the unrealized idea. Yet driven by hard truths, the poem ends with a resounding commitment to the American idea that we can yet make our own:Also at The Bulwark, John Kingston writes in a similar vein :
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Today we should still ask: “What, to Black Americans, is the Fourth of July.” Or, even better, “What, to all Americans, should the Fourth of July be?”
This year, let’s not gloss over the disconnect between the lived experience of white and black Americans. Let’s acknowledge the path Black Americans have traveled—through Emancipation, Juneteenth, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights era, and on to today—to even get where we all are.
It’s okay for our holidays to be complicated. Memorial Day and Veterans Day, to take just two examples, commingle our celebration of what has been achieved, with our mourning of the sacrifice that work entailed, and the aspiration to earn the freedoms which were secured for us at great cost.
That’s a lot of freight. But the truth is, the holidays mean more when we appreciate their complexity. Not less.
Similarly, let’s change how we take July Fourth to heart. Together we can celebrate what has been achieved.
But together we should also mourn the costs with Douglass and our Black American brothers and sisters. And so together we can pledge to work to fulfill the Declaration’s promise.